Texas Bowl Preview: Rice vs. Western Michigan

After several weeks of preparation and practice, Rice and Western Michigan are set to tee it up Tuesday night at Reliant Stadium for the Texas Bowl. Here's a look at the Bronco Offense vs. the Owl Defense...

It wasn't hard for the Rice Owls to simulate the Western Michigan Offense in practices for the Texas Bowl.

Truth is the teams are strikingly similar. So Owl scout teamers really ddin't have to much outside of what they already do at practice.

But not to minimize their opponent - the Owls have a great deal of respect for the way their Offense executes what they do. Its not new or different - but the execution is superb.

In fact the Western Michigan Broncos have the most prolific Passing Offense in the Mid-American Conference this year behind Quarterback Tim Hiller, and big play Wide Receiver Jamarko Simmons.

Hmmmm. Great QB, great WR. Sounds like another team we know.

Hiller shook off a bad season of a year ago and was just superb in 2008. He was the MAC leader in passing yards per game, averaging right at 294 yards per contest. He had 34 touchdown throws, also the best in the conference.

The Broncos have a terrific group of Receivers, and though Simmons is the "go to" guy - the Broncos also have talent in Juan Nunez and Schneider Julien. The 3 make up the best WR unit in the MAC. The trio was a model of consistency; averaging an almost identical 12.1 yards per catch per man.

It all starts with Hiller though. Unlike Chase Clement, the 6-5 235 pounder is definitely a pocket passer. But hey, who needs to run when you have QB Rating of 148.4! He completed an astonishing 66.7% percent of his passes this season, throwing only 8 interceptions in 480 attempts.

As mentioned, Jamarko Simmons is Hiller's favorite target. The 6-2 235 pound Simmons is obviously very physical and is tough to bring down after the catch. He poses match-up problems for smaller Corners. In 2008 he hauled in a school-record 98 catches this year for 1,184 yards.

Simmons wasn't just a chain mover either. He was a big play Receiver for the Broncos - he hauled in a touchdown in the end-zone against Buffalo with only .05 seconds remaining on the clock that sent the game to overtime. The Broncos completed a comeback for the overtime victory that saw them score 22 points in the fourth quarter.

Western Michigan will obviously seek to move the ball through the air Tuesday night, but they are hardly one-dimensional. They are very capable of moving the ball on the ground with RB Brandon West. He's put up 970 yards on the ground this year and is also the Broncos' leading kick returner with a 23 yard average. Freshman backup Aaron Winchester (perfect name for a Broncos player!) is also capable of the big play. He split time with West late in the season and has a 25.3 yard kick return average himself - including a long return of 57 yards.

As if the Broncos didn't have enough weaponry with the players mentioned above, they also expect the return of TE Branden Ledbetter. The injured Ledbetter is considered by soem to be the best TE in the MAC.

Guess we see why Western Michigan is 9-3! Offense, offense, offense. They will be challenging to stop.

So what must the Owls do Defensively to win?

The winning formula all year has been to slow down the opposing team just enough to allow the Offense to rack up points. The Offense has done just that in compiling a 41.6 ppg scoring average. Conversely, Western Michigan averages 29.8 points per contest. Chase and company have to score points - but they have to have the ball to do so.

The Owls need to carry over the Defensive momentum they achieved in their last 4 games. They played decent to very good run defense in spots, got much better pressure on the QB, and overall looked like a different Defensive team than the one that struggled to contain teams early on in 2008. They have a terrific turnover ratio and I think that statistic could decide the ball game. Rice must create turnovers and capitalize with points.

The Owls will be relatively healthy for the Texas Bowl. That health on Defense in particular could dictate the outcome. If the Offense does what its been doing all year - and the Defense can play its best football of the season, the Owls could take home their 10th win of the season; and make this one of the finest Owl campaigns ever.

Tomorrow we look at the Bronco Defense...


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